Chaotic may be too kind a word to describe the Greensboro City Council work session Monday, July 18, on the proposed 2016 bond referendum in the Plaza Level Conference Room.
There were three and four conversations going on at once, nobody really knowing which part of the bond referendum was being discussed, votes in which the mayor announced the wrong winner and votes that didn’t take place but the bond numbers changed anyway.
The council, according to the official record, reduced the total amount of the bonds that they will recommend be placed on the ballot from $178.7 million to $126 million, and the number of bonds on the ballot from six to four.
The final totals at the meeting were housing for $25 million, community and economic development $38.5 million, parks and recreation $32.5 million, and transportation $30 million.
There are a bunch of subcategories under each bond, but they really don’t make any difference. The City Council can spend money on any project that meets the general criteria of the paragraph that will be on the ballot in November. The subcategories indicate where the council now thinks it will spend the money, but they are not binding. All the transportation money could be spent on repaving streets or all of it could be spent to buy new buses.
Considering how the council traded millions back and forth based on a statement like “that seems right to me,” there is no telling where the money will be spent inside each of the broad bond categories.
So far this bond initiative has been done without public input. The only public input on the bonds will occur at the public hearing on August 1, shortly before the City Council votes to put the bonds on the ballot.
Most of the bond discussions have been held in secret closed meetings between fewer than five councilmembers and assorted staff.
The public bond discussion that got all this going in January was for about $40 million in bonds. The total at the end of the secret meetings was right at $200 million. It was reduced to $104 million and then, at the last bond discussion, was raised to $178.7 million.
Trusting this group with $178.7 million or $126 million is taking a big chance.
The most popular bonds with the City Council are the housing bonds – and a portion of this bond is not to provide housing assistance to the poor because there is federal money to do that. Interim Assistant City Manager Barbara Harris told the City Council that $8 million was to provide housing assistance to middle income people like teachers, police officers and firefighters.
Why does the City Council plan to borrow money to provide housing assistance to people who make good livings and can afford their own homes? It will certainly allow middle-income people to buy larger starter homes, but is that a good use of tax dollars?
The proposed housing bond was reduced from $34 million to $25 million but no explanation was given on what the rational was behind the cuts.
The community and economic development bond was reduced from $39.5 million to $38.5 million. The council agreed to reduce the amount for infill development from $5 million to $4 million. Councilmember Tony Wilkins asked that it be reduced to the $1 million that the staff recommended but didn’t get any support.
Nobody seems to know how this money will be spent. Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann gave the example of buying the old YWCA building where LeBauer Park is being built. The city managed to buy that property without a bond because the city is rolling in money. But how often does a piece of property completely surrounded by city-owned property come on the market at the same time a benefactor donates $10 million for a park? It doesn’t happen that often and it doesn’t seem like the city really needs to borrow $4 million in case it happens again.
Planning Department Director Sue Schwartz said there just wasn’t private money out there for infill development and no one challenged that statement.
Carroll at Bellemeade is infill. Greenway at Fisher Park and Greenway at Stadium Park are infill, as are the Preyer Brewing Co., Crafted, Joymongers Brewing Co. and Deep Roots Market, and that is in one corner of the downtown.
The apartments off Lawndale and Pisgah Church Road are infill as is the new mixed-use development planned for Lawndale and Independence Road. The Hobbs Road and Friendly Avenue site is infill. The midtown project on Battleground Avenue south of Wendover that Marty Kotis is building and plans to greatly expand is infill. There are infill projects going on all the time. Why should the city put money into something that private developers are already doing?
After the meeting Mayor Nancy Vaughan gave a different version of how this money will be spent. She said it was for the city to buy dilapidated commercial property. But it would appear that since anything built inside the city can be considered infill, it gives the City Council $4 million in mad money.
Here is another theory: There is a long standing rumor that Kotis wants city assistance in building a parking deck for his midtown project. It would fit the city’s definition of infill and it might be what this money is actually intended for.
Vaughan said the money isn’t intended for any particular project, but of course that doesn’t eliminate any particular project either. If the money isn’t for midtown, it makes even less sense, unless, along with providing homes for the middle class, this City Council plans to get in the development business. It would be an almost guaranteed disaster since only one member of the City Council has a job in the private sector and that is attorney Justin Outling. There isn’t a single active businessperson on the City Council.
Hoffmann is retired but has bought and renovated some downtown property, so maybe they are depending on her expertise.
During Monday’s work session it seemed that Vaughan was deferring to Councilmember Sharon Hightower, asking Hightower what she recommended and then supporting that. Hightower, for instance, suggested cutting $1 million from infill because it seemed about right.
Councilmember Mike Barber pushed hard to keep the $20 million for repairing and repaving streets as a separate bond. He said it was the most popular bond being proposed and should stand alone. It appeared that Vaughan led a battle to remove the $20 million all together, arguing that the City Council had increased the registration fee for vehicles from $10 to $30 a year and that should provide enough revenue.
The council also briefly considered redirecting some of the $60 million in transportation bond money that is still available from the 2006, 2008 and 2009 bonds for repaving. Some might argue that if the City Council has $60 million in bonds available, it doesn’t need to borrow another $126 million, but none of those people are on the City Council.
Barber noted that Field Operations Director Dale Wyrick had told the council that the increased registration fee would provide enough funds to help stop the decline of the street conditions but it wouldn’t be enough to improve the overall condition of the streets. Along with the increased registration fee, the City Council also decided to start spending water and sewer funds on street repair.
During the work session, it appeared the $20 million for street repaving was gone and then, magically, it was back in the transportation bond. The City Council was assured by city staff that the bond language would be general enough that the transportation bond money could be spent to build new streets and sidewalks, repave streets and sidewalks, build the greenway and buy new city buses. Bond language is normally general, but this may pave new territory in that the money will be available for anything that is related to transportation. Who knows how they will spend it?
Barber and Wilkins opposed the $25 million in housing bonds, and answers to Barber’s questions revealed that the money would be used for middleclass housing. Hoffmann said providing money for middleclass housing would help the schools attract and retain teachers. Barber said housing wasn’t the problem with attracting and keeping good teachers.
Wilkins got in a tense back and forth with Vaughan over the housing bonds. One of the rationales for the bond package from the beginning has been that Winston-Salem recently passed $144 million in bonds. Wilkins and Barber both noted that in that $144 million bond, $5 million was for housing. Wilkins asked why Greensboro needed 500 percent more in housing bonds than Winston and Vaughan replied, “We are Greensboro. We are not Winston.”
The discussion got heated and Wilkins pointed out that Greensboro is constantly comparing itself to Winston. In fact the entire reason that Greensboro tried the committee system was that Winston used the committee system. Members of the Winston-Salem City Council came to a Greensboro City Council work session to explain how it worked. Councilmember Jamal Fox pushed hard for committees last year because he said it worked so well in Winston.
At some point, but it was hard to tell when, $20 million was added to the transportation bond for street repaving. The money came from the $20 million already in the bond to finish Gate City Boulevard that was eliminated. The council also reduced sidewalk improvements from $10 million to $5 million and intersection and bicycle and pedestrian improvements from $10 million to $5 million. So the transportation bond was reduced from $40 million to $30 million.
Although there is $25 million for housing bonds there is also money for housing in the community and economic development bond. There is $1.5 million to build affordable housing at the Union Square redevelopment project on Gate City Boulevard and South Elm Street and $1 million for housing in the Ole Asheboro Street Neighborhood.
Also in the community and economic development bond is $25 million for the downtown infrastructure. Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter said she thought $25 million was too much and made a motion to reduce it to $20, not based on any data, but just because. Wilkins was the only councilmember to support her, so downtown stayed at $25 million.
But to be fair, none of the decisions appeared to be based on data.
If the $126 million in bonds is passed by the voters, it will raise property taxes in 2017-2018 by 3.35 cents.
Earlier in the work session, the council voted to do away with the committee structure, which everyone agreed had been a huge waste of time and resources. Fox, who was the chief advocate of committees, was absent.
What the council is going to try is having an “agenda review” meeting and holding work sessions as needed.
The City Council also discussed setting up a group to meet with the county to discuss the 32 or 33 contracts the city and county have. Exactly how that is going to be done is unclear; if a resolution was reached it wasn’t obvious.